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You can’t have the bad without the good!
Every year (and every month!) I like to write about the bad moments along with the good ones because I think it’s important to show that travel is not a prescription for a happy life. Even if you travel all the time, plenty of bad things happen along with the good.
This is my life. I just happen to spend most of it on the road. If you know anyone with a perfectly smooth live, I’d love to get their secrets!
I’m deeply grateful that 2015 has been a very smooth year. This list is devoid of severe injuries, grave illnesses, dangerous situations, financial setbacks and business difficulties. That’s about as good as you can hope for! This year could have been much worse, and I’m thankful that each day I’m able to rise out of bed, take care of myself, and continue working on a business that allows me to live a very good life.
You’ve read about my best travel moments of 2015 — now get ready for the worst!
Getting Taxi Scammed at Sea Dance
I consider myself a fairly vigilant traveler, and as a result, I’ve very rarely been scammed. But I fell victim to one of my biggest scams to date on the first night of Sea Dance in Budva, Montenegro.
I found myself unusually tired that night and decided to go back early while Jeremy and Ryan stayed at the festival. I hopped into one of the normal-looking taxis waiting in the line outside — and soon realized that in addition to taking me on an indirect route, the meter was charging me FAR more than it should have.
The meter should have been at six euros. The late-night rate should have been at ten euros. Instead, by the time the driver pulled up to our apartment complex, I had a bill of forty euros!
I started arguing with the driver; he said that it was the correct price. “It’s always ten euros!” I cried. I refused to pay four times that rate — yet I was in an isolated situation, in the parking lot of the complex with no bystanders, which could have been dangerous.
I threw him twenty euros and ran toward my apartment.
He initially ran after me, threatening to call the police. I then burst into fake ugly-sobbing (“I have nothing! I have nothing!“) at the top of my lungs. Eventually he stepped back and I ran inside.
Feeling Helpless in My Great-Grandfather’s Village
Sicily was a challenge, but the lowest point of the trip came when we were in Castanea delle Furie, my great-grandfather’s village.
That’s when I realized just how different Sicilian dialect was. I would say a sentence and the locals wouldn’t understand me. They would say a sentence and I might pick out one word, tops. Speaking Italian worked in the more popular tourist sites in Sicily like Siracusa and Taormina, but in random rural areas like Castanea, I might as well have been speaking Greek!
We were going around the neighborhood and trying to connect the dots in our ancestry by asking locals for help, something that, as an introvert, I hate doing in the first place, language barrier or not. The locals would keep firing off sentence I couldn’t understand as my mom kept saying, “Translate! Translate!” and I wanted nothing more than to run away and hide.
It was deeply moving to visit Castanea, and I feel grateful that we got to spend the time figuring out where my great-grandfather came from. After seeing how isolated it is, even in 2015, we have a better understanding of why he ran away and sailed to America at the age of 11.
Now, looking back at the events of the summer, I’ve been wondering what made me such a mess in Sicily. I think I placed too high expectations on myself as both a traveler and a guide for my family. I’m an expert traveler in Italy — I go a few times a year, I speak the language, I know how to order a coffee (and what kind of coffee to order at the right time of day) at a bar, I know to validate my train tickets, I know Sunday lunches are sacred, I know what time the passegiatta starts, I can decode a whole Italian menu instantly.
But Sicily was nothing remotely like the rest of Italy, and I wasn’t prepared for that. At all.
Losing Both Our Debit Cards in El Tunco
This is, by far, the dumbest thing I did this year. While in El Tunco, El Salvador, I got money out at one of the ATMs in town, then forgot to take my card afterward. There are two ATMs in that town and they are both the type that don’t spit your card back until the very end of the transaction.
Now, you think this was bad. It gets worse. The exact same thing happened to Leif, and we were about to run our first tour.
Now, we were somewhat prepared for losing our debit cards. Both of us had backup debit cards connected to our Paypal accounts (and having a backup card hidden in your luggage is something that I recommend for all travelers).
The only problem was that we had to pay all of our tour vendors in cash upon arrival, and we were limited in how much money Paypal would let you take out per day. Plus, I had to transfer money to my Paypal account first, which took a few days (Paypal doesn’t let you withdraw more than is in your Paypal account, even if you’ve connected it to another bank account. You CAN use it as a debit card using money your backup bank account, though.)
We got through the tour just fine, which was a relief. We just barely were able to get by from taking out the maximum amount of money each day.
But that is an experience I never want to repeat! I’ve since become extra vigilant about checking for my card after transactions.
Getting Lost in Berlin in the Middle of the Night
You know what’s awesome? When you take a taxi home at the end of a crazy and it takes you to the completely wrong corner of the city. And you don’t notice until it’s gone.
It was late. I had no data on my phone, so I couldn’t call an Uber. Germany is stingy with public wifi and unlocked networks are more or less impossible to find. Cabs were nowhere to be found. And let me add that Berlin is nine times the size of Paris.
So I walked — in the rain, shrouded in my smoky coat. My phone battery was rapidly dying, but my GPS helped my navigate my way back eventually, destroying my leather flats in the process.
I finally made it home at 8:00 AM, soaked to the bone, and nearly cried with relief when I got inside. On the plus side, I had walked 30,000 steps since midnight.
The Hostel Experience in Barcelona
I’m not a big fan of hostel dorms anymore, but in Barcelona this summer, I figured I could deal with dorm life for just a few days. To make it the best experience possible, I chose what was then the top-rated hostel in Barcelona (Hostel Sant Jordi Gracia) and selected a small four-bed dorm.
And it seemed good at first. I met a young guy from Long Island sleeping on the bunk beneath mine who told me he had visited friends in Massachusetts before, in Pea-BOD-dee. “It’s PEA-b’dee,” I said with a smile. “That’s right!” he replied.
All that charm went out the window at 4:30 AM when his alarm went off.
And wouldn’t stop.
Despite the fact that this kid had a screaming phone next to him, he didn’t so much as move to turn it off. I had to climb down from my top bunk and shake him for a few minutes before he woke up and turned it off.
Miffed, I went back to bed.
Ten minutes later, the same thing happened. The alarm was shrieking; the kid still wouldn’t wake up. I got up to shake him again. AND THEN IT HAPPENED A THIRD TIME. That time, I stayed there until he showed me he shut it off.
The next day, the kid was standing in the hostel lobby and I let him have it in front of everyone there.
“What you did was rude and inconsiderate,” I snapped. “Staying in a dorm means being respectful of your fellow dormmates and not setting alarms every ten minutes!”
“Yeah, but I was inebriated!” he protested. This kid.
“If you’re going to be inebriated, don’t set off a million alarms for the middle of the night! I had to keep getting up from my top bunk to wake you! Did you even remember that?”
After Barcelona, I flew to Santorini and stayed in another dorm — the island was booked solid and it was the only affordable accommodation left. But since then, I haven’t stayed in another dorm since. At 31, I’m fairly certain my dorm days are behind me.
Riding the “Small Ferry” in Lake Nicaragua
Even though it’s been more than four years since my shipwreck, I still get nervous on boat rides. And while I handled the crossing to Ometepe on the “big ferry” just fine, the small ferry back to the mainland was much worse.
It was a flimsy wooden boat similar to my boat that sank off Komodo Island. It was an extremely windy day and the ship careened from side to the point that the sides would dip into the water and the crew would have to bail it out. Passengers were crying and throwing up. I basically froze in place for the whole trip, absolutely terrified.
I know the video doesn’t look too scary, but believe me, this was the very calm ending of the treacherous journey. During most of the trip, I was afraid to move a muscle, much less start filming! And to those of you who say, “It’s just a lake,” head to one of the Great Lakes on a windy day sometime and you’ll see how choppy a big lake can get!
Visiting Ometepe? The big ferry and small ferry trade off crossings all day. Wait for a big ferry; it’s a million times better.
The November Breakdown
I’m still trying to figure out what led to my breakdown in Chiang Mai in November. It was the culmination of several months (if not years) of intense travel, capped off by a heaping amount of stress and an arrival of anxiety.
Suddenly, I had no idea how be normal anymore.
I felt completely apathetic with my work.
I ate breakfast at the same place every day because I couldn’t bear the thought of figuring out a new restaurant.
I couldn’t get up the nerve to go to the Yi Peng lantern festival or any Loy Krathong celebrations.
I went out for Thai barbecue with a big group of friends and panicked because I couldn’t figure out what to do.
I was on edge with my friends, either staying silent the whole time or on the verge of exploding.
Sometimes I just went back to my accommodation and cried.
How do you get from traveling the world for five years to being a person afraid of everything? And in Chiang Mai, perhaps the most western-friendly city in Asia, of all places? I have no idea.
I am aware that things could have been much worse, and since then, I’ve been starting some new self-care routines so that I can reduce these stresses before they get any worse. I’ve been getting much better since coming home, and probably the best thing I’ve done is start a morning meditation routine, which grounds me throughout the day.
Either way, I know that it’s now time for me to take a big, long break from travel. I’ll still be writing plenty here (there’s so much I haven’t written about yet!), but I think the best thing for me is to stay put in one place where I don’t have to battle through cultural differences for awhile.
Volcano Boarding Gone Bad in Nicaragua
I had been looking forward to volcano boarding in Nicaragua so much. To the best of my knowledge, Cerro Negro in Nicaragua was (and still is) the only place where you can do this activity, and it had been a must on my list for Central America for years.
I signed up through Bigfoot Hostel, climbed the volcano, donned my big orange jumpsuit, and got ready to slide down on my sled.
Only I didn’t slide.
No matter how far back I leaned, I couldn’t get myself to slide. Halfway down, I had to give up and kick my board down the volcano as everyone groaned.
It turns out my board was defective — something I hadn’t realized beforehand, as I was one of the people who had paid a supplementary $5 for the crew to carry my board up the volcano for me. Those who carried their own boards knew what they were getting.
If I go back, I might try it again with a different company — I hear Quetzal Trekkers is much better and they give back to the local community.
It wasn’t the worst thing to happen — but I was disappointed that an activity I had been looking forward to for years had turned out so badly.
Getting Locked in a Vestibule With a Giant Cockroach in Sicily
Who knew that it was possible to lock yourself in between the two doors? In our Airbnb rental in Avola, Sicily, you would let yourself into a vestibule with one key and then let yourself into the apartment with the other key.
And it was all good until the inside door slammed closed with the keys still in it. My mom and I were trapped between the doors with no way of getting out. Oh, and have I mentioned that we had just swept a giant cockroach from our apartment into the vestibule?
Thankfully, our host, Giovanni, was nearby and quickly came to our rescue. Even though we primarily communicated in emojis over Whatsapp.
Getting Robbed by a Monkey in Railay
Do not fuck with monkeys. Seriously.
This was my third visit to Railay, Thailand. Monkeys have always had a presence there, but this year was different — I saw far more tourists taunting them or trying to cuddle them. Thai authorities didn’t do anything about it. An antagonized animal is not a happy animal, let me tell you that!
I was carrying a white plastic bag from the store filled with bottled water, a bag of chips, and a three-pack of Oreos. As I walked by the monkey-filled area, one of the larger monkeys slinked over to me, closer and closer.
Eventually, it grabbed the white bag. I shrieked and dropped it. Even though none of my food was open, the monkey knew from the white bag that there were goodies inside. He carried the chips and Oreos to the top of the tree; when I returned an hour later, I found the shredded bags on the ground.
If you’re going to Railay, get in and get out of the monkey area quickly. Or, better yet, don’t even visit and spend all your time in Koh Lanta instead.
Public Transportation in Albania
Traveling in Albania during the summer means lots of hot and terrifying bus rides. I remember roasting on a bus from Saranda to Fier, sweat dripping off my face, as the bus tore around corners with absolutely no barriers. One wrong move and we could easily have swerved off a cliff.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful as we carved through the mountains — but I would have appreciated it more if I weren’t white-knuckling the seat in front of me the whole time!
Getting Overcharged at the Guatemala-Belize Border
Something happened when I crossed from El Salvador into Guatemala — for some reason, I was only granted a 13-day stay. Even though I had been in Guatemala a few different times over the last few months, and even though Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua share borders, there’s no reason why I should have only been given 13 days.
The agent didn’t say anything to me, either in Spanish or English, and it wasn’t clearly marked on the passport. There was only a “13” written on the right side, without “dias” or a date.
I was lucky to have Erisa with me for that part of the trip — she was my resident attack dog, whether it was doing all the haggling (something I actually hate doing) or dealing with tough situations like this one as we tried to explain our situation to the border agent.
“How much?” Erisa asked in Spanish.
“60 quetzales,” Erisa snapped. “60 quetzales is the price of corruption!”
“Okay, okay, okay,” I burst in before things got more heated. “It’s fine. I’ll just pay it.”
It wasn’t much — about the equivalent of ten dollars. I just wish I had known about it in the first place.
So, let that be a lesson to you — when you enter Guatemala, check the number written in the right quadrant of the passport stamp. That tells you how many days you have.
Bedbugs in León
I fell in love with my guesthouse, Via Via, right away. It was in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from good bakeries and the central park and cathedral, and it was much nicer than the party hostels lining the street.
The rooms were old-fashioned and beautiful; the mattresses were comfortable. The internet was decent and there were work areas. And most importantly, there was a restaurant, so I didn’t have to worry about going out alone at night. (León was one of few places in Central America where I didn’t feel comfortable alone on the streets at night.) $28 per night for an ensuite room was expensive for Nicaragua, but a fair price to pay for the comfort, I felt.
Until I started waking up covered in itchy blotches. And recognized the telltale marks: several “mosquito bites” evenly spaced in a straight line. Bedbugs had arrived.
I’ve gotten bedbugs before in Montenegro. When it happened, the staff was horrified and proactive and immediately cleaned my room top to bottom. Here? Not so much. The staff pretty much shrugged and said, “Es mosquito.” “No es mosquito!” I replied, showing them the marks.
Believe me, this might sound crazy to you, but I was so not in the mood not to change accommodation that I stayed a few more nights, changing the sheets each day and isolating my laundry until I went to El Tunco. It actually worked. The bugs were much easier to deal with.
Falling Off a Meat Cart in Copenhagen
Yeah, it’s a funny story in retrospect, but it sure wasn’t at the time! One thing led to another during a crazy night out in the city and I ended up riding on top of a meat cart, then falling off it and slamming my arm and knee on a curb, turning them black and blue.
Oh, man — that was a painful fall. For the next month, I had a weird little bump on my arm where I had hit the curb. You can still feel a little bit of it today. I’m glad it’s healed!